Admissions Officers Discuss 3 Common Essay Topics

A college essay topic doesn't have to be unique to be a good choice for applicants, experts say.

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Admissions officers look at much more than the topic students select when assessing college essays.

Grades and test scores may measure a student's academic potential, but those factors fail to capture his or her personality. That's where the college essay comes in. The college essay offers students the chance to tell their own story to admissions officials.

How important is the college essay? It ranked as the fifth most important factor in the admissions process in a 2019 National Association for College Admission Counseling survey. The essay followed other factors: high school GPA , grades in college prep courses, strength of curriculum at a student's high school, and SAT and ACT scores.

High school students may worry about not having an original topic for their college essay – that anything they write about will be something admissions officers have read countless times before.

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But admissions deans and directors from several colleges told U.S. News that it's OK if applicants write about a common subject.

"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," says Whitney Soule, senior vice president and dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin College in Maine.

How common an essay topic is matters less than a student's ability to express something significant about himself or herself.

"It's not just about the topic, but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic," says Jennifer Gayles, director of admission and coordinator of multicultural recruitment at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Here are three examples of common college application essay topics that admissions officials say are fine for students to write about as long as they do so thoughtfully.

The Big Game Essay

Many high school students play sports, so it's understandable that athletics comes up fairly often in college essays.

One potential pitfall of a sports-focused essay is that students spend too much time describing what happened in the game, meet or competition and not enough time on how it affected them personally, some experts say.

Laura Stratton, director of admission at Scripps College in California, says she remembers reading a well-written sports essay in which the author wrote about being benched. The student was a senior and had played throughout the season, but she found herself on the sideline during the final game.

"The self-awareness the student showed of being a good team member and showing up for her teammates and continuing to be positive even though it wasn't the personal experience that she wanted to have, it said a lot about her character and about the type of roommate she would be or classmate she would be," Stratton says, "and that landed really well with the readers."

It's also fairly common for students to write about a sports-related injury in response to a college essay prompt about overcoming a challenge or failure, says Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in North Carolina. One of the 2019-2020 essay prompts for The Common Application – an application platform that allows students to submit their materials, including the essay, to multiple colleges at once – focuses on overcoming obstacles, according to the platform's website.

"If that's what has really mattered to the student, if that's something that has generated a lot of thought on their part, then I think it's a great essay topic," Guttentag says.

Essays That Focus on Service-Based Activities

College essays about service to others, either at home or abroad, can be moving to read but difficult to effectively write, given the short amount of space students are allotted for a college essay, some experts say. The Common App essay is limited to 650 words, for example.

"The idea of other people who are less advantaged being used as the vehicle for someone's increased self-awareness is how that can come across sometimes," Guttentag says, "and I think that can be difficult to pull off."

A student's motivation for choosing this topic also matters. If applicants decide to write about service, they should do so because their experience has led to thought and reflection, not because they feel like this is a topic admissions officers expect them to write about, Guttentag says.

Essays That Focus on a Meaningful Relationship

Students don't have to write about a major turning point in their essay, Soule says. They can instead reflect on something from their day-to-day life that they find meaningful. For some students, this may mean writing about a relationship with a parent, grandparent or other key figure in their life.

"I think that those can be great essays if the student is keeping top of mind that at the end of the essay we should know something about them as a person and how that relationship has affected and shaped them," Stratton says, "not just the great things about their grandma."

For example, Soule says she remembers a strong essay in which a student wrote about being a sibling. The student talked about what his relationship with his younger brother was like at different points throughout his life.

There wasn't any big, dramatic moment that the story hinged on, Soule says. The essay just reflected on how the student and his brother had grown up and evolved in relation to one another.

"That was really personal," Soule says, "and it also demonstrated a person who could see himself in relationship to other people, which is a hugely important quality, particularly when we're building a community of people who are going to be living together and learning together."

While students may ask themselves, "How important are college essays?" the answer is simple: important enough for college admissions that they should invest the time and effort to do their best and make the topic their own – even if it's common.

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This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Jordan Sanchez in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.

What’s Covered:

Admissions profiles, the common app essay.

In this post, we discuss the purpose and importance of the college essay . For more information on college essays, check out this post about how to write this year’s Common App essays . 

There are several aspects to your admissions profile. The first is your academic performance, which is measured by your GPA, class rank, and other academic achievements. The second is your extracurricular activities, which should speak to your passions inside and outside of the classroom. The third is your scores on exams, including the SAT, ACT, AP, IBS, and subject tests. The fourth and final part of your admissions profile is essays, including your personal statement and any supplemental essays.

However, many schools are now adopting test-optional policies, and, for some students, that can mean losing the exam section of their admissions profile. In this case, the essay will hold even more weight. Essays usually make up 25% to 30% of an admissions profile. 

The Common App essay is typically the only chance that admissions officers have to hear from you directly, so make the most of this opportunity. Whether an essay is optional or required, you should always complete it to the best of your ability. 

The Common App essay should give the admissions committee a clear sense of who you are. Your writing should showcase your personality and how you would fit in with the culture of the school to which you’re applying. The essay functions to complete the picture that you’ve painted with the rest of your application. It’s a chance to show how you’ve grown throughout your high school experience or how you’ve remained consistent if that’s the case. You can talk about major life experiences or lessons that you’ve learned; many students focus on a specific moment in their lives and how it has affected them.

In your writing, be as specific as possible about yourself and your experiences. Throughout the process, ask yourself this question: could anyone else write this essay? Writing about your specific life experiences is a guaranteed way to make your essay stand out. 

Remember, a strong essay can even make up for weaknesses in other areas of your application.

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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.

Pamela Reynolds

When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.

Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.

So, what does this mean for you?

Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.

A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.

A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.

Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.

Be Authentic

More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.

Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.

Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.

Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.

Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.

Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.

Grab the Reader From the Start

You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.

Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.

Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.

Focus on Deeper Themes

Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.

College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.

They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.

Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?

Show Don’t Tell

As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.

The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.

Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.

Try Doing Something Different

If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?

If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.

You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.

However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.

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Write With the Reader in Mind

Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.

Use transitions between paragraphs.

Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?

Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?

Write Several Drafts

Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.

Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.

Read It Aloud

Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.

Don’t Repeat

If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.

Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.

Ask Others to Read Your Essay

Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.

Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.

Pay Attention to Form

Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.

“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.

In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.

End Your Essay With a “Kicker”

In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.

It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.

So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.

While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.

Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!

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About the Author

Pamela Reynolds is a Boston-area feature writer and editor whose work appears in numerous publications. She is the author of “Revamp: A Memoir of Travel and Obsessive Renovation.”

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How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples

The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students.

A standout essay has a few key ingredients:

  • A unique, personal topic
  • A compelling, well-structured narrative
  • A clear, creative writing style
  • Evidence of self-reflection and insight

To achieve this, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time for brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through every step in the process of writing a college admissions essay.

Table of contents

Why do you need a standout essay, start organizing early, choose a unique topic, outline your essay, start with a memorable introduction, write like an artist, craft a strong conclusion, revise and receive feedback, frequently asked questions.

While most of your application lists your academic achievements, your college admissions essay is your opportunity to share who you are and why you’d be a good addition to the university.

Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

What do colleges look for in an essay?

Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here’s what colleges look for in an essay :

  • Demonstrated values and qualities
  • Vulnerability and authenticity
  • Self-reflection and insight
  • Creative, clear, and concise writing skills

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It’s a good idea to start organizing your college application timeline in the summer of your junior year to make your application process easier. This will give you ample time for essay brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

While timelines will vary for each student, aim to spend at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing your first draft and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Remember to leave enough time for breaks in between each writing and editing stage.

Create an essay tracker sheet

If you’re applying to multiple schools, you will have to juggle writing several essays for each one. We recommend using an essay tracker spreadsheet to help you visualize and organize the following:

  • Deadlines and number of essays needed
  • Prompt overlap, allowing you to write one essay for similar prompts

You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template.

College essay tracker template

Ideally, you should start brainstorming college essay topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic.

If you want to write about a common essay topic, such as a sports injury or volunteer work overseas, think carefully about how you can make it unique and personal. You’ll need to demonstrate deep insight and write your story in an original way to differentiate it from similar essays.

What makes a good topic?

  • Meaningful and personal to you
  • Uncommon or has an unusual angle
  • Reveals something different from the rest of your application

Brainstorming questions

You should do a comprehensive brainstorm before choosing your topic. Here are a few questions to get started:

  • What are your top five values? What lived experiences demonstrate these values?
  • What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe you?
  • What challenges or failures have you faced and overcome? What lessons did you learn from them?
  • What makes you different from your classmates?
  • What are some objects that represent your identity, your community, your relationships, your passions, or your goals?
  • Whom do you admire most? Why?
  • What three people have significantly impacted your life? How did they influence you?

How to identify your topic

Here are two strategies for identifying a topic that demonstrates your values:

  • Start with your qualities : First, identify positive qualities about yourself; then, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.
  • Start with a story : Brainstorm a list of memorable life moments; then, identify a value shown in each story.

After choosing your topic, organize your ideas in an essay outline , which will help keep you focused while writing. Unlike a five-paragraph academic essay, there’s no set structure for a college admissions essay. You can take a more creative approach, using storytelling techniques to shape your essay.

Two common approaches are to structure your essay as a series of vignettes or as a single narrative.

Vignettes structure

The vignette, or montage, structure weaves together several stories united by a common theme. Each story should demonstrate one of your values or qualities and conclude with an insight or future outlook.

This structure gives the admissions officer glimpses into your personality, background, and identity, and shows how your qualities appear in different areas of your life.

Topic: Museum with a “five senses” exhibit of my experiences

  • Introduction: Tour guide introduces my museum and my “Making Sense of My Heritage” exhibit
  • Story: Racial discrimination with my eyes
  • Lesson: Using my writing to document truth
  • Story: Broadway musical interests
  • Lesson: Finding my voice
  • Story: Smells from family dinner table
  • Lesson: Appreciating home and family
  • Story: Washing dishes
  • Lesson: Finding moments of peace in busy schedule
  • Story: Biking with Ava
  • Lesson: Finding pleasure in job well done
  • Conclusion: Tour guide concludes tour, invites guest to come back for “fall College Collection,” featuring my search for identity and learning.

Single story structure

The single story, or narrative, structure uses a chronological narrative to show a student’s character development over time. Some narrative essays detail moments in a relatively brief event, while others narrate a longer journey spanning months or years.

Single story essays are effective if you have overcome a significant challenge or want to demonstrate personal development.

Topic: Sports injury helps me learn to be a better student and person

  • Situation: Football injury
  • Challenge: Friends distant, teachers don’t know how to help, football is gone for me
  • Turning point: Starting to like learning in Ms. Brady’s history class; meeting Christina and her friends
  • My reactions: Reading poetry; finding shared interest in poetry with Christina; spending more time studying and with people different from me
  • Insight: They taught me compassion and opened my eyes to a different lifestyle; even though I still can’t play football, I’m starting a new game

Brainstorm creative insights or story arcs

Regardless of your essay’s structure, try to craft a surprising story arc or original insights, especially if you’re writing about a common topic.

Never exaggerate or fabricate facts about yourself to seem interesting. However, try finding connections in your life that deviate from cliché storylines and lessons.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and they typically spend only a few minutes reading each one. To get your message across, your introduction , or hook, needs to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to read more..

Avoid starting your introduction with a famous quote, cliché, or reference to the essay itself (“While I sat down to write this essay…”).

While you can sometimes use dialogue or a meaningful quotation from a close family member or friend, make sure it encapsulates your essay’s overall theme.

Find an original, creative way of starting your essay using the following two methods.

Option 1: Start with an intriguing hook

Begin your essay with an unexpected statement to pique the reader’s curiosity and compel them to carefully read your essay. A mysterious introduction disarms the reader’s expectations and introduces questions that can only be answered by reading more.

Option 2: Start with vivid imagery

Illustrate a clear, detailed image to immediately transport your reader into your memory. You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay’s theme.

A college application essay allows you to be creative in your style and tone. As you draft your essay, try to use interesting language to enliven your story and stand out .

Show, don’t tell

“Tell” in writing means to simply state a fact: “I am a basketball player.” “ Show ” in writing means to use details, examples, and vivid imagery to help the reader easily visualize your memory: “My heart races as I set up to shoot一two seconds, one second一and score a three-pointer!”

First, reflect on every detail of a specific image or scene to recall the most memorable aspects.

  • What are the most prominent images?
  • Are there any particular sounds, smells, or tastes associated with this memory?
  • What emotion or physical feeling did you have at that time?

Be vulnerable to create an emotional response

You don’t have to share a huge secret or traumatic story, but you should dig deep to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and experiences to evoke an emotional response. Showing vulnerability demonstrates humility and maturity. However, don’t exaggerate to gain sympathy.

Use appropriate style and tone

Make sure your essay has the right style and tone by following these guidelines:

  • Use a conversational yet respectful tone: less formal than academic writing, but more formal than texting your friends.
  • Prioritize using “I” statements to highlight your perspective.
  • Write within your vocabulary range to maintain an authentic voice.
  • Write concisely, and use the active voice to keep a fast pace.
  • Follow grammar rules (unless you have valid stylistic reasons for breaking them).

You should end your college essay with a deep insight or creative ending to leave the reader with a strong final impression. Your college admissions essay should avoid the following:

  • Summarizing what you already wrote
  • Stating your hope of being accepted to the school
  • Mentioning character traits that should have been illustrated in the essay, such as “I’m a hard worker”

Here are two strategies to craft a strong conclusion.

Option 1: Full circle, sandwich structure

The full circle, or sandwich, structure concludes the essay with an image, idea, or story mentioned in the introduction. This strategy gives the reader a strong sense of closure.

In the example below, the essay concludes by returning to the “museum” metaphor that the writer opened with.

Option 2: Revealing your insight

You can use the conclusion to show the insight you gained as a result of the experiences you’ve described. Revealing your main message at the end creates suspense and keeps the takeaway at the forefront of your reader’s mind.

Revise your essay before submitting it to check its content, style, and grammar. Get feedback from no more than two or three people.

It’s normal to go through several rounds of revision, but take breaks between each editing stage.

Also check out our college essay examples to see what does and doesn’t work in an essay and the kinds of changes you can make to improve yours.

Respect the word count

Most schools specify a word count for each essay , and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit.

Remain under the specified word count limit to show you can write concisely and follow directions. However, don’t write too little, which may imply that you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.

Check your content, style, and grammar

  • First, check big-picture issues of message, flow, and clarity.
  • Then, check for style and tone issues.
  • Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Get feedback

Get feedback from 2–3 people who know you well, have good writing skills, and are familiar with college essays.

  • Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your content, language, and tone.
  • Friends and family can check for authenticity.
  • An essay coach or editor has specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and can give objective expert feedback.

The checklist below helps you make sure your essay ticks all the boxes.

College admissions essay checklist

I’ve organized my essay prompts and created an essay writing schedule.

I’ve done a comprehensive brainstorm for essay topics.

I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me and reveals something different from the rest of my application.

I’ve created an outline to guide my structure.

I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.

I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of telling.

I’ve shown positive traits and values in my essay.

I’ve demonstrated self-reflection and insight in my essay.

I’ve used appropriate style and tone .

I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.

I’ve revised my essay , checking my overall message, flow, clarity, and grammar.

I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.

Congratulations!

It looks like your essay ticks all the boxes. A second pair of eyes can help you take it to the next level – Scribbr's essay coaches can help.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

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7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

Bonus Material:  30 College Essays That Worked

The college essay is one of the most important aspects of a student’s application.

It gives applicants an opportunity to articulate their personal values, character traits, and perspectives. It’s also a chance to add more value to your application, simply by demonstrating who you are outside of your resume and transcript.

A “successful” college essay is one that makes the most of these opportunities and, in many cases, earns an acceptance.

We’ve demystified what most admissions officers look for in college applications . But what are these officers looking for in the college essay itself? What are the top qualities of a successful application essay?

In analyzing various essays of admitted applicants, we’ve come up with a list of the characteristics that most of these pieces have in common. We’ll be referring to some of these pieces throughout the post.

Plus, we give you access to 30 college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools. Grab these below.

Download 30 College Essays That Worked

Here’s what we cover:

  • What is The College Application Essay (in a nutshell)?
  • 7 Qualities of a Successful Essay
  • Bonus: 30 College Essays That Worked

The College Application Essay In a Nutshell

Most students applying to a college or university in the U.S. must submit an application essay (or “personal statement”) with their application.

Depending on the application platform the college uses (typically either Coalition or the Common App ), students have 500-650 words to craft a response. While each of these platforms has college essay prompts, it’s helpful to view these prompts as general guidelines as to what colleges are looking for in a response.

Based on these prompts and our own experience coaching college essay students , the application essay is:

  • the chance to say what the rest of your application doesn’t say
  • a demonstration of your character, values, and/or voice
  • the platform to show who you are outside of a resume/transcript
  • an introspective personal essay

The college essay is NOT :

  • a rehashing of your resume
  • an excuse or explanation of other components of your application
  • a formal, five-paragraph essay
  • what you think “colleges want to hear”

A standard college application includes an academic transcript, recommendation letters, extracurricular / activities section, an optional resume, and standardized test scores. The essay is an addition  to these 4 general components, so it makes sense that it should complement them by saying something new.

That’s why we like to define the essay as a “demonstration of character, values, and/or voice.” True, these elements can be inferred from other components of the application. But the essay is your opportunity to clearly and personally demonstrate what matters to you, who you are at the core, and/or your essential perspectives of the world.

For this reason, the college essay is introspective and personal. Colleges want to hear that “I” voice in the application essay, loud and clear, and they want active, intelligent reflection.

You can see this in action in the 30 college essays that worked, which you can download below.

( Note: Some colleges might require applicants to submit supplemental essays in addition to their personal statement. These often have very specific prompts and different word lengths. Here are 8 great tips for approaching supplemental essays . )

 7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

We’ve assessed several college essays of applicants admitted to a wide range of schools, including Ivy League institutions. While extremely diverse, these pieces generally had the following characteristics in common.

1. Introspective and reflective

Many English teachers tell their students not to use the first-person “I” in their essays. While this might be the standard for some academic essays, the college essay  should  include that “I.” What’s more, it should include a  lot  of that “I”!

This can be understandably uncomfortable for students, many of whom may simply not be used to talking about themselves openly and declaratively on a page. It can also feel awkward from a stylistic point of view for students who are not used to writing in the first-person.

Yet colleges want to hear your words in your own voice, and they are especially interested in learning more about your perspectives on the world and insights gleaned from your various life experiences. That’s why many successful college essays are highly introspective, full of the writer’s active reflections on what they’ve learned, how they view the world, and who they are.

We typically see the bulk of such introspection at the  end  of an essay, where the writer summarizes these reflections (although this is by no means standard), as we can see in the conclusion to Erica’s essay here, which describes her earlier attempt to write and publish a novel:

Sometimes, when I’m feeling insecure about my ability as a novelist I open up my first draft again, turn to a random chapter, and read it aloud. Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

In her personal statement, Aja reflects deeply on what she specifically learned from an experience described earlier on in the piece:

I found from my experiment and questioning within my mind that my practices distinguished me from others, thereby allowing me to form relationships on the basis of common interest or personality, rather than cultural similarities, that summer. I valued the relationships more, and formed a deep connection with my lab partner, whom I had found was similar to me in many ways. 

Notice how both of these selections contain a lot of that first-person voice, which is critical to elaborating perspectives, learning points, and introspective thoughts. And did we mention that admissions officers are  looking for  those specific perspectives, learning points, and thoughts that compose who you are?

2. Full of a student’s voice

An academic transcript can be revealing to admissions officers. The same goes for recommendation letters and resumes. But it’s hard to convey an individual voice in these application components. The college essay is your prime vehicle for speaking directly to colleges in your own words  about what matters to you.

Successful college essays thus veer away from the formal voice many students employ when writing academic essays. Rather, they showcase a student’s unique way of expressing themselves on a page, which can be, for example, humorous, informal, intimate, lyrical, and/or speculative.

Voice is at the forefront of Elizabeth’s essay about her love for “all that is spicy:”

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. I began by dabbling in peppers of the jarred variety. Pepperoncini, giardiniera, sports peppers, and jalapeños became not only toppings, but appetizers, complete entrées, and desserts. As my palate matured, I delved into a more aggressive assortment of spicy fare. I’m not referring to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the crunchy snack devoured by dilettantes. No, it was bottles of infernal magma that came next in my tasting curriculum.

Notice how Elizabeth’s descriptions of her passion for spice are rich with her voice: playful, intelligent, and humorous. This also gives us insight into a specific aspect of her character–that’s the power of voice when it comes to personal essay writing, and college admissions officers are very interested in applicants’ characters.

3. Descriptive and engaging

You don’t have to be a natural creative writer to compose a successful college essay. Yet competitive essays aren’t afraid to dive deeply into a subject and describe it, whether that description relates to imagery, emotions, perspectives, or insights. A college essay shouldn’t leave the reader guessing in any way–it should be highly specific and it should tell your story in an engaging fashion.

Harry’s more intellectual essay presents his views on common values in society. He is careful to be very specific and descriptive in these views, incorporating both a relevant incident from history and his own direct relationship to the issue:

Admittedly, the problem of social integration is one I feel can be widely overstated – for example, when I was looking into some research for a similar topic a couple of years ago, I found numerous surveys indicating that ethnic minorities (especially Islam) identify much more closely with Britain than do the population at large. Still though, I, like many others, find myself constantly troubled by the prospect of the war from within that seems to be developing. This fear is fuelled by events such as the brutal killing of the soldier Lee Rigby at the hands of two British Muslims a couple of years ago.

In her essay, Amanda is extremely detailed in describing her experience as a caretaker for a difficult child. The result is a clear portrait of the challenge itself and Amanda’s relationship to this challenge, told from the perspective of an engaging storyteller:

Then I met Robyn, and I realized how wrong I was. Prone to anger, aggressive, sometimes violent (I have the scar to prove it). Every Sunday with Robyn was a challenge. Yoga, dancing, cooking, art, tennis – none of these activities held her interest for long before she would inevitably throw a tantrum or stalk over to a corner to sulk or fight with the other children. She alternated between wrapping her arms around my neck, declaring to anyone who passed by that she loved me, and clawing at my arms, screaming at me to leave her alone.

The successful college essays we see always  emerge from a place of honesty. Writing with honesty also is more likely to accurately convey a student’s unique voice, inspire reflection and introspection, and result in a descriptive, meaningful piece (all of the qualities listed in this post!).

Sometimes this means adopting a candid or direct voice on the page. James starts his essay frankly in this singular statement:

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race.

Or it might mean describing a challenge, vulnerability, or perspective truthfully, as Martin does in his essay about the experiences that have molded his character over the years:

Looking back, I have never been the “masculine boy” as society says my role to be. I have always thought I do not fit the social definition of a male as one who is “manly” and “sporty” and this alienating feeling of being different still persists today at times. However, I also have become more comfortable with myself, and I see my growth firsthand throughout high school.

Given that many universities value “truth” in their own mission statements and mottos, admissions officers will prioritize those essays that ring with a student’s honest voice.

5. Unconventional & distinct

This is by no means a requirement of a successful college essay. But many of the essays that earn students acceptance at their dream schools veer away from the predictable or expected, as we saw in Elizabeth’s essay above (“I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier”). They are, in a nutshell, 100% unique.

We’ve seen some essays, for example, that follow more radical structures, such as list formats or experimental narratives. Others focus on unexpected subjects, like Shanaz’s piece on the relevance of Game of Thrones in her life and trajectory of learning.

And, time and again, successful college essays step away from what admissions officers already see in applications–academics, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and classes. They may focus on something very specific (hot sauce or Game of Thrones ), seemingly ordinary (eating a kosher meal in public or working on a problem set), or personally interesting (a historic murder or wrestling game).

Regardless, the essays that “work” emphasize the unexpected, as opposed to the expected. Distinct essays will also feel as if they could not have been written by anyone else .

6. Well-written

This might also sound like an obvious quality of a successful essay, but it’s still worth mentioning. The most competitive application essays showcase strong writing skills, providing evidence of a student’s ability to tell a specific story artfully and well. 

Essays should also be error-free, grammatically precise, and stylistically on point. Successful pieces also might demonstrate versatility through varied sentence structure, word choice, and rhetorical or literary devices. Lastly, well-written essays typically adhere to a specific storytelling structure.

This excerpt from Justin’s essay about his experience in the California Cadet Corps, for example, displays a high command of language, word choice, and sentence structure:

Through Survival, I learned many things about myself and the way I approach the world. I realized that I take for granted innumerable small privileges and conveniences and that I undervalue what I do have. Now that I had experienced true and sustained hunger, I felt regret for times when I threw away food and behaved with unconscious waste. 

7. Meaningful

Above all, a successful college essay adds value to a student’s holistic college application. It is full of  meaning , in that it

  • showcases a student’s unique voice
  • elucidates an applicant’s particular perspective(s), character trait(s), and/or belief(s) and
  • honestly conveys a significant component of who a student is

It might be difficult to compress the entirety of who you are into 650 words. Yet it is most certainly possible to craft 650 words that add significant meaning to an overall application in terms of a student’s  personal potential for the future. This is exactly what admissions officers are looking for . 

What can you do to ensure that your college essay aligns with these successful qualities? You can check out examples of essays that do!

You can download 30 actual college essays that earned their writers acceptance into Ivy League schools, right now, for free.

the importance of college essay

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. 

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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

the importance of college essay

What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

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Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .

We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

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Essays in College Admissions: Are They Important? Why?

the importance of college essay

As you prepare for the college admissions process, you’ve likely wondered how critical essays are to securing your spot at your dream university. It’s a common question among aspiring students and for a good reason. US colleges and universities receive over 35,000 applications annually, making admissions incredibly competitive.

Did you know that the Harvard Crimson reported that the acceptance rate for the class of 2023 was just 4.9%? With stats like these, it’s essential to understand why essays are a cornerstone of your college application.

A Brief Overview of the College Admissions Process

Entering the world of college admissions can often seem like venturing into uncharted territory, especially for first-time applicants. Understanding the basic steps involved can help reduce any anxiety you may be feeling and provide a more precise roadmap for this crucial journey.

  • Research and Explore

Before applying, you’ll need to conduct thorough research on potential colleges. Factors to consider include academic programs, campus culture, location, size, extracurricular activities, and financial aid opportunities.

Many colleges often require standardized tests like the SAT or ACT . These scores and your high school GPA play a significant role in the initial screening process.

  • Application Preparation

This stage includes gathering all necessary documents: transcripts, letters of recommendation, and your essay. Each application element should be carefully considered, as they collectively portray who you are as a student and individual.

Also read: stand out in your college applications

  • Essay Writing

Your college essay is your chance to express your unique story and personality. It gives the admissions committee insight into your personal experiences and goals that grades and test scores can’t. This is where you can truly set yourself apart from other applicants.

  • Application Submission

Once your application packet is complete, it’s time to submit it. Deadlines vary from college to college, but submitting applications well ahead of these deadlines is recommended. This shows you’re serious about attending and can put you in the running for early decision or action consideration.

  • Interviews and Follow-up

Some colleges conduct interviews as part of the admissions process, while others may ask for additional materials. After submitting your application, stay in touch with the admissions office and promptly respond to any requests.

  • Decision Time

Eventually, you’ll receive a letter or an email from each college you applied to, informing you of their decision. Regardless of the outcome, it’s important to remember that every college journey is unique and often full of surprises.

The Purpose of College Essays for Admission Officers

The college admissions process is about more than just numbers. While grades and test scores are important, they don’t tell the full story of who you are as a person.

That’s where the college essay rules comes into play. Let’s delve into the purpose these essays serve for admission officers.

Also learn what to do if you drop out of college

Insight into Student’s Writing and Communication Skills

First and foremost, your college essay provides admission officers with a direct measure of your writing and communication skills. This isn’t just about grammar and vocabulary, although those are certainly important. It’s about your ability to present your ideas clearly and persuasively.

Can you construct a logical argument? Can you make complex ideas accessible and engaging? These are the types of skills that are crucial for success in college, and your essay is your chance to demonstrate them.

Understanding of Student’s Values, Character, and Motivation

Your college essay is also an opportunity to share your values, character, and motivation. Through your story, admission officers get a glimpse into what drives you, what you care about, and what kind of person you are beyond your academic achievements.

Are you a problem solver? Are you passionate about a certain cause? Have you shown resilience in the face of challenges? These qualities can’t be quantified, but they are incredibly valuable in a collegiate environment.

Gauge of Student’s Fit with the College’s Culture and Values

Finally, your college essay helps admission officers gauge if you’d be a good fit for their institution’s culture and values. Every college and university has its unique environment and mission.

By expressing your personal goals, experiences, and perspectives in your essay, you give the admissions team a sense of whether you’re likely to thrive in their particular academic community.

The Purpose of College Essays for Admission Officers

Also read: the most expensive colleges in the world

How an Impactful Essay Can Enhance Admission Chances

A well-written, compelling essay can significantly enhance your admission chances. It’s an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the crowd and showcase your unique personality, experiences, and perspective.

Here’s how it can make a difference:

  • Demonstrating Your Ability to Think and Communicate Clearly: A well-crafted essay indicates that you’re capable of expressing your thoughts in a clear, coherent manner. This is a crucial skill in college, where you’ll need to write papers, engage in discussions, and present your ideas.
  • Highlighting Your Unique Perspective: A unique, authentic essay can help you stand out from other applicants. It demonstrates that you bring a distinct perspective to the table, which can contribute to the diversity of thought on campus.
  • Expressing Your Interest and Fit: A thoughtfully written essay shows that you’ve taken the time to research the college and understand its culture. It can communicate how you envision contributing to the community, thereby indicating your potential fit.

The Repercussions of a Poorly Written or Insincere Essay

On the flip side, a poorly written or insincere essay can have negative repercussions.

  • Hurting Your First Impression: Errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling can be off-putting and can give the impression of carelessness. It might suggest that you haven’t taken the application process seriously.
  • Raising Questions About Your Authenticity: An insincere essay, one that doesn’t sound like you or seems to be trying too hard to impress, can raise red flags. Authenticity is key in the admissions process, and an essay that lacks it can lead admissions officers to question your fit and credibility.
  • Missing the Opportunity to Stand Out: A generic essay that doesn’t convey your unique story or perspective can make you blend into the crowd of applicants, rather than stand out.

How to Craft a Successful College Essay

The Repercussions of a Poorly Written or Insincere Essay

Creating a successful college essay is both an art and a science. It requires a delicate balance of authenticity, focus, reflection, and technical accuracy.

Let’s explore these elements in more detail and look at some strategies to help you excel at each stage of the writing process.

Key Elements of an Effective College Essay

There are three critical ingredients that make a college essay stand out: authenticity, focus, and reflection.

Importance of Proofreading and Getting Feedback

Proofreading your essay and obtaining feedback are critical steps that should never be skipped. Here’s why:

  • Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation: Even the best ideas can be overshadowed by technical mistakes. Proofreading helps ensure your essay is clean and polished.
  • Clarity and Coherence: Sometimes what makes perfect sense in our heads doesn’t translate as clearly on paper. Getting feedback from others can help identify areas of confusion or ambiguity.
  • Tone and Voice: Feedback can also help ensure your tone is appropriate and your unique voice shines through.

Tips on Brainstorming, Drafting, Revising, and Polishing the Essay

Here are some actionable tips for each stage of the writing process.

How to Craft a Successful College Essay

Conclusion: The Pivotal Role of Essays in College Admissions

Navigating the world of college admissions can seem overwhelming, but understanding the key components, particularly the importance of the essay, can greatly empower applicants.

The significance of the college essay goes beyond mere requirements—it is a platform for students to express their unique voices, share personal narratives, and showcase qualities that numbers can’t quantify.

A compelling essay offers invaluable insight into a student’s writing skills, values, and fit for the institution. It’s a powerful tool that can either enhance admission chances or, if poorly executed, undermine an otherwise strong application.

Given its pivotal role, it’s worth investing significant time and effort in creating a well-crafted, authentic, and reflective essay.

Seeking feedback, making necessary revisions, and meticulous proofreading are critical in ensuring your essay is the best it can be. Remember, every sentence is an opportunity to showcase your potential and convince the admissions committee that you’re a great fit for their college community.

In the end, the college essay is more than just a part of your application—it’s a story about you. It’s your journey, your experiences, and your aspirations. It’s a chance to turn numbers and facts into a narrative that truly represents you.

So, let your unique voice shine through, and embrace the opportunity to show the person behind the grades and test scores. Remember, it’s your story, so tell it in your own way!

the importance of college essay

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One of our team members is Alina Burakova. She has vast experience in reviewing career and education-related websites. Being a little shy, Alina dislikes writing about herself too much, so here is her short bio. In 2010, she graduated from ...

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.

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College Admissions , College Essays

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The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article is a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.

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Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.

Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!

the importance of college essay

Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.

Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

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Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. 

Connecticut college.

  • 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025

Hamilton College

  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).

  • 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
  • 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
  • 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
  • 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.

Babson College

  • 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020

Emory University

  • 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
  • 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out

University of Georgia

  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2023
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2022
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2021
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2020
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2019
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2018
  • 6 essays from admitted MIT students

Smith College

  • 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018

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Books of College Essays

If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.

College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.

Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.

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Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"

"Why me?" I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

An Opening Line That Draws You In

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

Great, Detailed Opening Story

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

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Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

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An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

the importance of college essay

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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.

One Clear Governing Metaphor

This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.

But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:

This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.

Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:

While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.

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An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.

Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.

Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!

For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:

Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.

Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.

In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.

The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.

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Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.”  The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.

Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.

4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

#1: Get Help From the Experts

Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings .  If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with  PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.  If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .

#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.

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#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.

#4: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .

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What's Next?

Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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The Vital Role of the College Essay: A Key Component in the New Admissions Landscape

  • Admissions and College Search

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It’s August and college application season has officially begun- whether you’re ready for it or not! There is a lot that goes into a complete application, but one extremely important component is the college essay.

As we continue to live in the new normal of college admissions, the college essay has never been more important to a student’s success than it is right now. With the recent Supreme Court rulings on Affirmative Action, the college essay will play a vital role in a student’s admission package. In this article we will outline the importance of the essay along with some general tips to follow as you get started.

The Overall Importance of the College Essay

Personal side of application.

Your college essay is your chance to really express who you are.  The essay is the personal side of your application; maybe this is why the Common App refers to the main essay as your “personal essay.”  You write in your voice, about a topic that is personal to you. The rest of your college application package consists mainly of information about you and your family, your school record, and your extracurricular involvement. It’s all the facts and figures that colleges want to see about you. Your essay should sound like you on paper.

One area where you have complete control

The Common App gives you seven different prompts to choose from. Some students feel confined by writing about a specific topic given to them. If you are one of those students, no need to worry! The last prompt option is, “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

Sample of your writing skill

Colleges want to see if you can write a clear and concise essay on a specific topic.  They want to see your writing abilities. Notice the emphasis on you there.  Do not let a parent, counselor, teacher, or AI edit your writing with a heavy hand. Application readers can tell if a senior in high school wrote the essay or someone else.

Common Application essay length 

You are limited to a maximum of 650 words, about 4 – 5 paragraphs for your essay. That may sound like a lot, but most students find they need to do some trimming once they’ve written a few drafts. The application won’t accept an essay shorter than 250 words. And once you hit the 650 word point, your essay will get cut off. 

At least one essay required for the vast majority of institutions

Most universities require you to submit at least one essay as part of your application. If you are using the Common App, once you add colleges to your “My Colleges” tab, you can look under the Writing section and see which of your school choices require an essay and which schools do not.  Even if a school doesn’t require an essay, you’ll be given the option to include it during submission.

Increased importance with test optional

As more schools offer a test optional path to college admission, there is now a heightened focus on qualitative aspects of the college application. No test scores to compare to other students in the applicant pool means college admissions offices give your college essay more weight and analysis.

The SAT used to include an essay portion as part of the test. That was eliminated as of June 2021. Now the only writing that is submitted is part of the college application.

SAT Subject tests were also eliminated as of June 2021. This is one more piece of data that no longer exists for admission offices to consider as part of an applicant’s admission package.

Finally, many colleges, especially since the Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action was released, are requiring students to submit additional writing samples.  These are on a school by school basis and known usually as supplemental essays in the Common App.

General Tips for the College Essay

The do’s for your college essay.

  • Use your 5 senses and really do some brainstorming to come up with ways to describe specific things
  • Don’t simply state a fact to get an idea across, such as “I like to surround myself with people with a variety of backgrounds and interests.”
  • You want the readers to be able to put themselves into the story you are telling in your essay. The best way to do that is through specific descriptions.
  • Remember, part of the question is whether you are a good fit for the school
  • The “why” is just as important!
  • You are showing the readers that you can write, but also that you can follow directions.
  • Include specific details, examples, reasons and so on to develop your ideas.
  • In the example above, describe a situation when you were surrounded by various types of people. What were you doing? Whom did you talk with? What did you take away from the experience
  • Look to make the story more about you and not just another story (i.e it’s your soccer game, not a soccer game)
  • Don’t rely just on spell check!
  • Get Feedback, but not too much feedback
  • Use your creativity and just write- there is no right or wrong at this point
  • The goal is to get some ideas and thoughts out on paper
  • Don’t focus so much on a specific prompt, but more on what you want to say about yourself

The Don’ts For your College Essay:

  • Or a sports hero story…
  • It’s not about how “big” a problem or experience is; it’s about the college getting to know the real you
  • Humor is completely acceptable; if you use it regularly.
  • Don’t try to be someone else in your essay to impress the readers.
  •  Repeats get noticed!
  • And plagiarism is a big deal and a guaranteed denial into a university.
  • You do want to stand out and make an impression on the college admissions readers, but in a positive way.
  • You may be able to express your thoughts on this in a supplemental essay though.
  • The admissions office has already seen your activities , grades, and possibly test scores
  • Use your 650 words to tell another story about yourself
  • Don’t think of this essay as just another essay like you write in English class.
  • Make your essay standout.
  • You don’t want to use the same word over and over again, but you also don’t want to sound like someone you aren’t.
  • Remember to write in your own voice!

Writing your college essay can be a source of anguish, stress, and sometimes dread to rising seniors. This essay could be part of the package that helps gets you into the college you really want to attend next year. We understand the importance, and so do the colleges.

So do the hard work, write the drafts and revisions, tell a great story about you, but be yourself; that’s who colleges want to learn about! And yes, your essay may carry more weight in your overall application now, but that’s not a reason to panic or change course. The ultimate goal of the college essay is to show the school who you really are, and why you’d be a great fit in your own words. So be you and get writing!

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The Importance of the College Essay

The Importance of the College Essay

Imagine you work in college admissions at the school you yourself hope to attend. You’re reading through a huge pile of applications, which are broken up into three groups. One small group is for those rare students whose scores and grades are so good that a mediocre essay wouldn’t be fatal (they’re in). Another group’s scores and grades are so bad that a great essay couldn’t help them (they’re out). The third group, by far the largest, is full of students whose scores and grades are good but not great. How would you tell who to accept and who to deny in that huge group? More than anything else, you’d read their essays! The essays would tell you who these students actually are and what they would bring to your campus. That’s the importance of college essays. For that reason, they can and will make or break your application.

OK, that sounds intimidating, but it also means that the college essay is a huge opportunity. It’s an opportunity to set yourself apart from the crowd. After all, almost everything aside from your essay is impersonal; none of it says much about who you are. And colleges do want to know who you are. They don’t want to admit students who have good standardized test scores but wouldn’t contribute anything to life on campus. They want to admit students who would be a good addition to a community, and neither test scores nor grades show that at all. 

So, that brings us to the different ways your essay can matter to your application:

Show What Your Effect on Campus Will Be.

First of all, your essay can show what your impact will be on campus. If you already know that you’re going to develop a passion of yours in college, the essay is where you can make that clear. For school-specific essays, you might even be able to speak about a particular group on campus. If you’ve developed a love for journalism in high school, for instance, you can showcase your excitement about continuing to journalism in college.

Prove That You’re the Real Deal.

That’s the extracurricular that’s most important to you? Model UN, robotics, volunteering? Regardless, thousands of other students are sure to list similar extracurriculars. Many of your fellow applicants did that activity just because it looked good on their application. Your essay is your chance to show that your passion is real. It’s a way to show how you became the person who actually cares about what your application claims you care about.

Dive into Something New.

You probably have lots of characteristics, stories, and interests that don’t fit in anywhere else in the rest of your application. If you love to cook elaborate breakfasts or read old English poetry, you can’t just list that kind of thing as an extracurricular activity. And it likely won’t show up in recommendation letters, either. But you can talk about those interests in your essay. You can reveal some of the things that define you in all your weird, delightful specificity. If you don’t know where to start, it’s not because you don’t have any weird and delightful character traits! It’s probably because you haven’t yet worked with a Mindfish tutor to help you find them and bring them to life on the page.

For help in identifying a terrific topic for your college application essays, or help in revising your existing draft, reach out to us at 720-204-1041 or by emailing [email protected].

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Importance Of A College Application Essay

  • January 25, 2021

Here's what we'll cover

Are you about to join college? Congratulations! As you plan to join a college , don’t think that test scores and grades are the only requirements for admission. While these two have some significant weight during admission, a written essay is equally important and needs special attention. This is because it is through such essays that your personality and suitability for admission can be assessed.  So before you actually start writing your college essay, you have to research and write a couple of drafts if you want a high-quality essay. The importance of a college application essay is highlighted below.

It demonstrates your interest

A college essay goes hand in hand with your personal statement. The essay will provide you with an opportunity to showcase your ability to undertake the course you’ve chosen. You can also use the college essay to you advantage by demonstrating your interest and knowledge of the institution you’ve chosen. 

Some colleges may ask you why you are interested in joining them. Most importantly why you want to join a particular school within the college. It is through your essay that you can state your long-term ambitions and goals. If you do it better than other prospective students, you can get an admission.

An Essay Adds Personality to College Application

Getting admission into a college takes more than just the grades you scored in high school and even the extracurricular activities you are good at. Your college application alone is also not enough. This is because the admission office would be interested in knowing you more and what sets you apart from other applicants. 

It is through your college essay that the admission office will get to know your personality. So, when writing the essay, try to use your authentic voice/tone but let your unique attributes shine through. 

Many colleges require students to provide some information about their self-discovery and growth. If you are seeking to join such a college, you can take that opportunity to discuss the personal challenges that have defined you and have helped you grow. So instead of focusing so much on your academic experiences, you can create a compelling essay by adding some non-academic experiences that have helped shape your life. 

It Reveals a New Thing About You

Your academic certificates and the application letter don’t give full information about you. An gives you a chance to provide the college the information about you that’s not found elsewhere. The essay gives you a platform to impress the admissions officials, so it is only your creativity that can limit you. 

You can consider crafting personal statements that highlight what’s missing in your transcripts or resume. For instance, instead of talking about how you were/are the best goalkeeper, you can talk about an experience outside extracurricular activity because this might have already been covered in your resume. 

It would be better if you talked about what you learned during your volunteering work, summer job, or travel that changed your perspective about life and made you grow into a better version of yourself.

Highlights Your Contribution on Campus

The admissions office in all colleges are looking for students who have something to contribute to the campus. You can take advantage of the college essay to not only talk about what your achievements are but also what you intend to do once on campus. 

State which programs, groups or associations you intend to join while in campus and what you intend to achieve as a member. Discuss your ambitions and goals to help the admissions office get a feel of how the college will benefit from your presence. 

Highlights What You intend to Major in

Highlighting the course you intend to major in is another importance of a college essay. Your essay should highlight your talents and interests, and also explain why your major suits these talents and interests. 

For example, if you want to major in English, Creative Writing , or Journalism, you can talk about your contributions in your high school magazine. Your essay should reflect your interest and talent in your chosen major. You can also talk about how the college you’ve chosen is going to help you with your interests and talents. 

It is also worth noting that some majors are more competitive than others. For this reason, you can use your essay to explain why you are the most suited for that major. Talk about your strengths and any other thing that can set you apart from other applicants. 

Highlights the Strength of Your Profile

If your high school grades are good but not very impressive, you can use a strong essay to impress the admission officers. The essay will only help if your grades lie at the “borderline.” With a strong essay, you may gain admission into a very lucrative course. Treat your essay as a medium through which you market yourself to the college. 

If your profile is already outstanding; with stellar GPA and impressive performance in extracurricular activities, your college essay may not have a great impact on your admission. But this doesn’t mean you can’t write a poor essay and escape with it. What it means is, you need a stronger essay if your academic performance is average. 

Final Thoughts

A college essay is very important in the admission process. It’s this document that shows the admission office who you are and what you are capable of doing. For this reason, you need to give it your best. 

You need to submit a carefully-considered and well-written essay. If writing is your weakness, you can have your family members, friends, guidance counselor or teachers read your essay and give some insight before you submit it. Avoid plagiarism because it will lead to automatic disqualification.

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Black History Month: What is it and why is it important?

Black History Month - A visitor at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories. Image:  Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

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This article was originally published in February 2021 and has been updated .

  • A continued engagement with history is vital as it helps give context for the present.
  • Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories, going beyond stories of racism and slavery to spotlight Black achievement.
  • This year's theme is African Americans and the Arts.

February is Black History Month. This month-long observance in the US and Canada is a chance to celebrate Black achievement and provide a fresh reminder to take stock of where systemic racism persists and give visibility to the people and organizations creating change. Here's what to know about Black History Month and how to celebrate it this year:

Have you read?

Black history month: key events in a decade of black lives matter, here are 4 ways businesses can celebrate black history month, how did black history month begin.

Black History Month's first iteration was Negro History Week, created in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, known as the "father of Black history." This historian helped establish the field of African American studies and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History , aimed to encourage " people of all ethnic and social backgrounds to discuss the Black experience ".

“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” ― Carter G. Woodson

His organization was later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and is currently the oldest historical society established for the promotion of African American history.

Why is Black History Month in February?

February was chosen by Woodson for the week-long observance as it coincides with the birthdates of both former US President Abraham Lincoln and social reformer Frederick Douglass. Both men played a significant role in helping to end slavery. Woodson also understood that members of the Black community already celebrated the births of Douglass and Lincoln and sought to build on existing traditions. "He was asking the public to extend their study of Black history, not to create a new tradition", as the ASALH explained on its website.

How did Black History Month become a national month of celebration?

By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the civil-rights movement and a growing awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week was celebrated by mayors in cities across the country. Eventually, the event evolved into Black History Month on many college campuses. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History month. In his speech, President Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.

Since his administration, every American president has recognized Black History Month and its mission. But it wasn't until Congress passed "National Black History Month" into law in 1986 that many in the country began to observe it formally. The law aimed to make all Americans "aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity".

Why is Black History Month celebrated?

Initially, Black History Month was a way of teaching students and young people about Black and African-Americans' contributions. Such stories had been largely forgotten and were a neglected part of the national narrative.

Now, it's seen as a celebration of those who've impacted not just the country but the world with their activism and achievements. In the US, the month-long spotlight during February is an opportunity for people to engage with Black histories, go beyond discussions of racism and slavery, and highlight Black leaders and accomplishments.

What is this year's Black History Month theme?

Every year, a theme is chosen by the ASALH, the group originally founded by Woodson. This year's theme, African Americans and the Arts .

"In the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, culinary and other forms of cultural expression, the African American influence has been paramount," the website says.

Is Black History Month celebrated anywhere else?

In Canada, they celebrate it in February. In countries like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland, they celebrate it in October. In Canada, African-Canadian parliament member Jean Augustine motioned for Black History Month in 1995 to bring awareness to Black Canadians' work.

When the UK started celebrating Black History Month in 1987, it focused on Black American history. Over time there has been more attention on Black British history. Now it is dedicated to honouring African people's contributions to the country. Its UK mission statement is: "Dig deeper, look closer, think bigger".

Why is Black History Month important?

For many modern Black millennials, the month-long celebration for Black History Month offers an opportunity to reimagine what possibilities lie ahead. But for many, the forces that drove Woodson nearly a century ago are more relevant than ever. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian Institution said at the opening of the Washington D.C.'s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016: “There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honouring our struggle and ancestors by remembering".

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What is Presidents Day and how is it celebrated? What to know about the federal holiday

Many will have a day off on monday in honor of presidents day. consumers may take advantage of retail sales that proliferate on the federal holiday, but here's what to know about the history of it..

the importance of college essay

Presidents Day is fast approaching, which may signal to many a relaxing three-day weekend and plenty of holiday sales and bargains .

But next to Independence Day, there may not exist another American holiday that is quite so patriotic.

While Presidents Day has come to be a commemoration of all the nation's 46 chief executives, both past and present, it wasn't always so broad . When it first came into existence – long before it was even federally recognized – the holiday was meant to celebrate just one man: George Washington.

How has the day grown from a simple celebration of the birthday of the first president of the United States? And why are we seeing all these ads for car and furniture sales on TV?

Here's what to know about Presidents Day and how it came to be:

When is Presidents Day 2024?

This year, Presidents Day is on Monday, Feb. 19.

The holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of every February because of a bill signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Taking effect three years later, the Uniform Holiday Bill mandated that three holidays – Memorial Day, Presidents Day and Veterans Day – occur on Mondays to prevent midweek shutdowns and add long weekends to the federal calendar, according to Britannica .

Other holidays, including Labor Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day , were also established to be celebrated on Mondays when they were first observed.

However, Veterans Day was returned to Nov. 11 in 1978 and continues to be commemorated on that day.

What does Presidents Day commemorate?

Presidents Day was initially established in 1879 to celebrate the birthday of the nation's first president, George Washington. In fact, the holiday was simply called Washington's Birthday, which is still how the federal government refers to it, the Department of State explains .

Following the death of the venerated American Revolution leader in 1799, Feb. 22, widely believed to be Washington's date of birth , became a perennial day of remembrance, according to History.com .

The day remained an unofficial observance for much of the 1800s until Sen. Stephen Wallace Dorsey of Arkansas proposed that it become a federal holiday. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law, according to History.com.

While initially being recognized only in Washington D.C., Washington's Birthday became a nationwide holiday in 1885. The first to celebrate the life of an individual American, Washington's Birthday was at the time one of only five federally-recognized holidays – the others being Christmas, New Year's, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

However, most Americans today likely don't view the federal holiday as a commemoration of just one specific president. Presidents Day has since come to represent a day to recognize and celebrate all of the United States' commanders-in-chief, according to the U.S. Department of State .

When the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971, a provision was included to combine the celebration of Washington’s birthday with Abraham Lincoln's on Feb. 12, according to History.com. Because the new annual date always fell between Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, Americans believed the day was intended to honor both presidents.

Interestingly, advertisers may have played a part in the shift to "Presidents Day."

Many businesses jumped at the opportunity to use the three-day weekend as a means to draw customers with Presidents Day sales and bargain at stores across the country, according to History.com.

How is the holiday celebrated?

Because Presidents Day is a federal holiday , most federal workers will have the day off .

Part of the reason Johnson made the day a uniform holiday was so Americans had a long weekend "to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours," he wrote. As such, places like the Washington Monument in D.C. and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota – which bears the likenesses of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt – are bound to attract plenty of tourists.

Similar to Independence Day, the holiday is also viewed as a patriotic celebration . As opposed to July, February might not be the best time for backyard barbecues and fireworks, but reenactments, parades and other ceremonies are sure to take place in cities across the U.S.

Presidential places abound across the U.S.

Opinions on current and recent presidents may leave Americans divided, but we apparently love our leaders of old enough to name a lot of places after them.

In 2023, the U.S. Census Bureau pulled information from its databases showcasing presidential geographic facts about the nation's cities and states.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the census data shows that as of 2020 , the U.S. is home to plenty of cities, counties and towns bearing presidential names. Specifically:

  • 94 places are named "Washington."
  • 72 places are named "Lincoln."
  • 67 places are named for Andrew Jackson, a controversial figure who owned slaves and forced thousands of Native Americans to march along the infamous Trail of Tears.

Contributing: Clare Mulroy

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at [email protected]

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  1. How Important is the College Essay?

    At the top 250 schools, your essays generally account for 25% of your overall application. This is only slightly behind the 30% for extracurriculars. Essays are actually ahead of the 20% for grades and coursework, 15% for test scores, and 10% for recommendations and interviews. Now that many schools are going test-optional or test-blind ...

  2. What is the purpose of a college essay?

    The college admissions essay gives admissions officers a different perspective on you beyond your academic achievements, test scores, and extracurriculars. It's your chance to stand out from other applicants with similar academic profiles by telling a unique, personal, and specific story.

  3. What Admissions Officers Think of 3 Common College Essay Topics

    It ranked as the fifth most important factor in the admissions process in a 2019 National Association for College Admission Counseling survey. The essay followed other factors: high school GPA ...

  4. The Purpose of the College Essay and Why It Matters

    The essay functions to complete the picture that you've painted with the rest of your application. It's a chance to show how you've grown throughout your high school experience or how you've remained consistent if that's the case. You can talk about major life experiences or lessons that you've learned; many students focus on a ...

  5. How important is the college essay

    However, a recent poll of admissions officers taken by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling is indicative of the application essay's importance: All Factors in Admission. Considerable Importance. Moderate Importance. Limited Importance. No Importance. Grades in All Courses. 74.5. 15.

  6. Why College Essays Matter and How to Make Yours Stick Out

    Despite common practices, there are four other factors that impact why your college essays matter: school size and type, your academic profile, your desired major, and whether test scores are optional. 1. School size and type. Larger public schools tend to receive more student applications for admissions than private schools.

  7. What is the College Essay? Your Complete Guide for 2023

    The college essay is a personal essay that tells an engaging story in 650 words or fewer. It is comparable to memoir or creative nonfiction writing, which relate the author's personal experiences. The college essay is fundamentally personal and creative. It is rich with introspection, reflection, and statements of self-awareness.

  8. 12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay

    Don't Repeat. If you've mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don't repeat it again in your essay. Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.

  9. How Important is the College Essay?

    College essays are critical because the admissions committee at most institutions, particularly more selective colleges, want to know more about you beyond grades and test scores. They want to know how you'll fit into the campus culture, so your essay is an opportunity to share what makes you unique — your experiences, personality ...

  10. How to Write a College Essay

    The college essay can make or break your application. This step-by-step guide walks you through everything you need to know. ... You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay's theme. Example As I step out of bed, the pain shoots through my foot and up my leg like it has done every morning ...

  11. 7 Qualities of a Successful College Essay

    The college essay is one of the most important aspects of a student's application. It gives applicants an opportunity to articulate their personal values, character traits, and perspectives. It's also a chance to add more value to your application, simply by demonstrating who you are outside of your resume and transcript. ...

  12. How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

    Here are some tips to get you started. Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don't have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to ...

  13. How important is the essay?

    The college essay. It is more important to some colleges than others. For instance, if you are an automatic admit (in the top 10% of your graduating class) the essays need to be written but they aren't going to make the difference between getting in or being declined. For smaller colleges a great essay is a tip factor, meaning that it could ...

  14. How Important Are Essays in College Admissions

    Navigating the world of college admissions can seem overwhelming, but understanding the key components, particularly the importance of the essay, can greatly empower applicants. The significance of the college essay goes beyond mere requirements—it is a platform for students to express their unique voices, share personal narratives, and ...

  15. How Important is the College Essay?

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    number of paragraphs in your essay should be determined by the number of steps you need to take to build your argument. To write strong paragraphs, try to focus each paragraph on one main point—and begin a new paragraph when you are moving to a new point or example. A strong paragraph in an academic essay will usually include these three ...

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    Using real sample college essays that worked will give you a great idea of what colleges look for. Learn from great examples here. Call Direct: 1 (866) 811-5546 ... Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court ...

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    With the recent Supreme Court rulings on Affirmative Action, the college essay will play a vital role in a student's admission package. In this article we will outline the importance of the essay along with some general tips to follow as you get started. The Overall Importance of the College Essay Personal side of application

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    The Importance of the College Admission Essay. College admission essays form an important part of a student's college application and are required by most schools. The essay is generally a response to a question posed in the college application, and a maximum essay length is usually imposed, forcing the applicant to succinctly make his or her ...

  21. The Importance of the College Essay

    The essays would tell you who these students actually are and what they would bring to your campus. That's the importance of college essays. For that reason, they can and will make or break your application. OK, that sounds intimidating, but it also means that the college essay is a huge opportunity.

  22. Master the College Application Essay: 7 Key Writing Tips [2024]

    1. Read College Application Essay Examples. Before you start writing, it's important to familiarize yourself with successful college application essays. Reading examples from previous applicants can give you a sense of what works and what doesn't. Pay attention to the structure, tone, and storytelling techniques used in these essays.

  23. 14 College Essay Examples From Top-25 Universities (2023-2024

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  24. Why College is Important to Me and My Future

    This essay will delve into the multifaceted dimensions of why college is important to me — intellectual growth, career opportunities, personal development, and the pursuit of meaningful impact. Intellectual Growth: Expanding Horizons. One of the primary reasons why college is important to me is the opportunity for intellectual growth.

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    Final Thoughts. A college essay is very important in the admission process. It's this document that shows the admission office who you are and what you are capable of doing. For this reason, you need to give it your best. You need to submit a carefully-considered and well-written essay.

  26. Black History Month: What is it and why is it important?

    A continued engagement with history is vital as it helps give context for the present. Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black histories, going beyond stories of racism and slavery to spotlight Black achievement. This year's theme is African Americans and the Arts. February is Black History Month.

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    This year, Presidents Day is on Monday, Feb. 19. The holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of every February because of a bill signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Taking ...